07/12/2004 12:00AM

Alumni Hall requires lots of patience


CHICAGO - Alumni Hall came out of Saturday's victory in the Black Tie Affair Handicap in good physical condition, but whether he comes back to Arlington for the Washington Park Handicap on July 31 is uncertain. The way trainer Neil Howard was talking Monday morning, the Saratoga Breeders' Cup Handicap, a race later in August, is at least as likely a spot for Alumni Hall's next start.

Not that Howard has built a specific plan for Alumni Hall. How could he? This is a horse Howard first began working with as a yearling in South Carolina. That was 1999, and Alumni Hall did not even make the races until this spring at Keeneland, a few months after he had turned 5. One problem after another had set Alumni Hall back. Arthritic joint, tendon, general body soreness - Alumni Hall had it all.

"Maturity, time, patience, luck." These are what eventually got Alumni Hall to the races, Howard said. "Giving him all the time we did, that really helped. Things healed up on him, and knock on wood, everything's looking good."

Alumni Hall, an A.P. Indy horse out of a top female family, won for the fourth time in five starts Saturday. He did not beat a superstar cast, but he won his stakes debut going away, with the look of a horse still figuring things out.

"One school of thought is you'd keep him on a fairly steady schedule," said Howard, pondering Alumni Hall's future. "Sometimes, you're better off racing than training. But when you look at all the options with this horse, you're better off taking your time and giving him four, five, six weeks between starts."

A lighter summer schedule would leave Howard room to maneuver later in the year. "It's hard to say if he's a Grade 1 kind of horse or not," he said. "Say he does move ahead and become a horse that fits in with the top group. In the back of your mind, you're thinking of races later in the year, and you'd like to have something left for those."

While Alumni Hall has been scaling the class ladder, Midway Road, the top horse in Howard's barn, has been getting what Howard termed a "busman's holiday" at Churchill Downs.

"He's been breezing every six or seven days," Howard said. "He's doing great."

Midway Road lost his form and ran off the board last time out in the Stephen Foster Handicap, but a month before he was an excellent second behind Southern Image in the Pimlico Special.

"He'll run at Saratoga, but where we're not sure yet," Howard said.

Cat Genius changes barns

Owner John Parker has moved the crack sprinter Cat Genius from Tom Amoss's stable to the barn of Kenny McPeek. Both outfits run a string in Chicago, but Cat Genius is with McPeek's horses at Churchill right now.

Cat Genius has been second in his last two starts, but both were sensational races. In the True North Handicap last month, Cat Genius set a scorching pace, but still finished well to run second behind Speightstown, one of the leading sprinters in the country. Two weekends ago, Cat Genius was second to the Chicago-based Coach Jimi Lee at Prairie Meadows, but it took a track record to beat him.

McPeek said Cat Genius had been sent to him about a week ago. Parker, from Houston, "asked me if I was interested in training a couple 2-year-olds," McPeek said. "Then he said he preferred to have all his horses with one guy."

McPeek said Cat Genius would have his first breeze since the barn change on Saturday. "I have no plans for him right now," he said.

Plans for Prince Arch, third last Saturday in the Virginia Derby, probably do not include the Secretariat here. "He's knocked a little bit back," McPeek said. "I might not run him back for 60 days."

Last Song lackluster in allowance

The Grade 2 winner Last Song finished third as the favorite in an allowance race here last Friday, her first start since she was ninth in the Kentucky Oaks. Her connections were looking for a better race, and Ian Wilkes, assistant to trainer Carl Nafzger, said Last Song's performance lacked effort.

"We felt we didn't get 110 percent from the filly," Wilkes said. "We really weren't happy with what she gave us down the lane. We don't feel like she gave us all she could."

Wilkes said there are no specific plans for Last Song right now: "We want to see where she is the next couple weeks. Maybe we're going to try some blinkers on her."

Tamweel, who has raced only twice on dirt, impressively won the Friday allowance in her first start since being privately purchased and turned over to trainer Wayne Catalano.